Red Light Phototherapy

Red Light Phototherapy is a treatment that involves exposing the skin to high intensity red light in the red spectrum. The purpose of the treatment is to reduce skin inflammation and accelerate healing. It is primarily used as a treatment for minor acne-scarring and to facilitate healing after an acne outbreak. Red Light Phototherapy is also occasionally used for the treatment of active acne symptoms.

How Does Red Light Phototherapy Work?

Clinical Red Light Phototherapy Machine
Clinical Red Light Phototherapy Machine

Red Light Phototherapy is most commonly used for photo-rejuvenation procedures. Several research studies have reported that red light (600-900 nm) stimulates the growth of new skin tissue and the production of collagen. Additionally, high intensity Red Light Phototherapy appears to assist in the resolution of inflammation, redness and other types of uneven skin tone. Scientists have some ideas about how red light might cause these changes in skin tissue, but the exact mechanism (or mechanisms) are not well understood. Nonetheless, the results from clinical research studies of Red Light Phototherapy have been generally positive. Although these study results may overstate the benefit of Red Light Phototherapy, the treatment is becoming more popular.

Collagen Production in Skin After Red Light Phototherapy (Weiss)
Collagen Production in Skin After Red Light Phototherapy (Weiss)

Researchers of Red Light Phototherapy have reported that the treatment induces the production and remodeling of collagen and elastin fibers. Collagen and elastin are protein based fibers that form an interconnected matrix (Extra-Cellular Matrix, ECM) that provides structural support and elasticity to the skin. A healthy ECM is one where the fibers form a three dimensional, interconnected structure that is capable of stretching and compressing in all directions. When skin is damaged or ages, the density and organization of the collagen and elastin matrix tends to deteriorate. Increasing the production of healthy collagen and elastin in the skin is one of the primary goals in skin rejuvenation procedures.

Proposed Mechanism of Action of Red Light Phototherapy (Zhang)
Proposed Mechanism of Action of Red Light Phototherapy (Zhang)

Researchers have also reported that specific wavelengths of light in the red spectrum appear to stimulate certain cellular functions. The majority of the research on the subject suggests that Red Light Phototherapy activates cellular processes that lead to a decrease in inflammation, improved healing of skin tissue and collagen production. Additionally, Red Light Phototherapy may inhibit the pathway that leads to apoptosis (cell death). Individual cellular components, mainly enzymes, have been shown to absorb light in the red spectrum. The most well studied of these red light absorbing enzymes is cytochrome c oxidase, an essential component of mitochondria, which are the power sources of a cell. The absorption of photons (light) by cytochrome c oxidase apparently increases the metabolic activity in a cell, which may explain the accelerated rate of healing observed after Red Light Phototherapy.

Red Light Phototherapy, Active Acne and Acne Scars

Red Light Phototherapy Treatment of Acne Before and After 1 (Na)
Red Light Phototherapy  Before and After  (Na)

Results from several clinical research studies indicate that Red Light Phototherapy can be partially effective as a treatment for active acne symptoms. However, the improvement in active acne symptoms in response to Red Light Phototherapy is likely to incomplete and temporary. For example, one study that evaluated Red Light Phototherapy found that treatment caused a small decrease in inflammation, but did not reduce the levels of acne-causing P. acnes bacteria or the production of sebum by sebaceous glands. This indicates that Red Light Phototherapy may be helpful by decreasing inflammation, but does not address some of the more fundamental causes of acne.

Red Light Phototherapy Erythema Treatment
Red Light Phototherapy Erythema Treatment

Red Light Phototherapy is also used in the treatment for acne scars. Although it is not an effective scar treatment by itself, it can be combined with other types of scar treatments (eg. Laser Resurfacing, Microdermabrasion) to accelerate the healing process. Red Light Phototherapy alone may be somewhat effective for the treatment of Erythema. Erythema is a common type of skin discoloration that can occur during or after acne outbreaks. It is generally caused by damaged or dilated capillaries near the skin surface. Red Light Phototherapy may help treat this condition by stimulating the repair of the damaged tissue. Other popular treatments for erythema include the use of lasers to ablate (destroy) the offending capillaries.


How and Where is Red Light Phototherapy Administered?

Red Light Phototherapy of Acne - Summary of Results (Na)
Red Light Phototherapy of Acne – Summary of Results (Na)

Most Red Light Phototherapy procedures use large panels of LED lights to create a high intensity source of a specific color (wavelength) of red light. Depending on the treatment, the precise wavelength of the light used can range from 600 nm (orange/red) to 850 nm (infra-red). Achieving therapeutic benefits from Red Light Phototherapy appears to require a high intensity light source.

Red Light Phototherapy 2
Red Light Phototherapy

Red Light Phototherapy using LED based light systems usually costs between 30 and 200 dollars per session when administered in a spa or clinic.  Home use Red Light Phototherapy systems are also available for purchase on the internet. Home use phototherapy systems range between 20 and 700 dollars, with large variations in the size, intensity and quality of the various systems. Small, inexpensive home use phototherapy systems are unlikely to be capable of generating the intensity of light that is required for the therapeutic benefits reported in the clinical research studies. It is important to recognize that light therapy requires frequent (even daily) treatment for significant improvement in acne symptoms. Treatment can also be time consuming, requiring up to 45 minutes per session.
Red Light Phototherapy is often used in conjunction with Blue Light Phototherapy or as part of a photo dynamic therapy (PDT) or intense pulsed light (IPL) system.

Red Light Phototherapy Images


LED Phototherapy @ RealSelf
Influence of 5-Aminolevulinic Acid and Red Light on Collagen Metabolism of Human Dermal Fibroblasts. Karrer, et al. 2003.
cDNA MicroarrayAnalysis of Gene Expression Pro¢les in Human Fibroblast Cells Irradiated with Red Light. Zhang, et al. 2003.
Clinical Trial of a Novel Non-Thermal LED Array for Reversal of Photoaging: Clinical, Histologic, and Surface Profilometric Results. Weiss, et al. 2005.
Effect of NASA Light-Emitting Diode Irradiation on Wound Healing. Whelan, et al. 2001.
Single Low-dose Red Light is as Efficacious as Methylaminolevulinate–Photodynamic Therapy for Treatment of Acne: Clinical Assessment and Fluorescence Monitoring. Hörfelt, et al. 2009.
A prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blinded, and split-face clinical study on LED phototherapy for skin rejuvenation: Clinical, profilometric, histologic, ultrastructural, and biochemical evaluations and comparison of three different treatment settings. Lee, et al. 2007.
Phototherapy with blue (415 nm) and red (660 nm) light in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Papageorgiou, et al. 2000.
Non‐invasive diagnostic evaluation of phototherapeutic effects of red light phototherapy of acne vulgaris. Zane, et al. 2008.
Red Light Phototherapy Alone Is Effective for Acne Vulgaris: Randomized, Single‐Blinded Clinical Trial. Na, et al. 2007.